Preaching Peace in Renaissance Italy: Bernardino of Siena & His Audience

Article excerpt

Preaching Peace in Renaissance Italy: Bernardino of Siena & His Audience. By Cynthia L. Polecritti. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 2000. Pp. xiv, 271. $61.95.)

Polecritti accomplishes what few historians of "peace" or "peacemaking" have accomplished over the last generation: she paints the vivid image of what these words actually meant in the context of a culture, time, and place, setting the larger framework of doctrine and tradition against a local nexus of faction, feud, violence, and revenge. Yet her analysis of Bernardino da Siena's preaching and peacemaking campaign in Siena in 1427 emphasizes less the history of peace and peacemaking in Renaissance Italy than the society that formed their context.

Her approach is refreshing since she largely avoids the standard approach to peacemaking based on literary and religious texts. Instead, she takes much of this deep Judeo-Christian background for granted and focuses on how these ideals came to interact with the dense fabric of Sienese society in the early Quattrocento: the life of the commune as it emerges from the contrada and the faction, from the family and the feud, always set against the external military and political threats to Siena's liberty. Thus Polecritti's book explores as much an urban society as the actual practice and conceptualization of peacemaking: how human societies both regulate and idealize themselves.

Polecritti's work derives from Gene Brucker's socio-political analyses of structures and institutions, Peter Brown's text-based and anthropological opening of religious sources, and the new forms of gender history that pay special attention to women's spirituality and social roles in forming behaviors.

Polecritti carefully analyzes the prediche volgari of Bernardino from 1424/25 (edited by Ciro Cannarozzi, 7 vols., 1934-1958) and from 1427 (Carlo Delcorno, 2 vols., 1989) to provide the reader with a well organized and convincing synthesis of much recent research on gender roles, visual language, ritual, codes of honor, and textual literacy in the period. To this she adds a succinct summary of trends in the anthropological and structural interpretations of violence, feud, revenge, and peacemaking in medieval and modem contexts.

After a useful introduction to his life and career, Polecritti analyzes Bernardino's vivid, often apocalyptic imagery and his own self-image as a divine agent, the rhetorical and story-telling devices of his sermons that placed them firmly within the everyday lives of his listeners, the nature and size of his audiences, and the structure of a typical series of sermons leading up to mass public acts of reconciliation and peacemaking. She rightly stresses the special role of women, both as audience for Bernardino's sermons and as "cultural catalysts" of his reforms. …